Genetics and Ethics

SGR Conference and AGM 1998

Mary Ward House, London WC1, November

Main presentations:
'Biotechnology and the Social Responsibility of Science' by Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Reader in Biology, Open University
'Genetically Modified Foods - What's the Problem?' by Prof Derek Burke, Former Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes

Workshops: Genetic Engineering; The Climate Train to Kyoto; Transport and Climate Change; Getting SGR better known

Summary by Dani Kaye, Alan Mayne, and Stuart Parkinson


Biotechnology and the Social Responsibility of Science

Presentation by Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Reader in Biology, Open University

Dr Mae-Wan Ho is the author of a thought-provoking polemical book on the subject of Genetic Engineering and its human, ethical and environmental implications1. Members of the Conference were treated to an articulate and impassioned development of the arguments against the corporatisation of biotechnology she had presented in her book.

Dr Ho began her talk by acknowledging the influence of the Third World Network, which had alerted her to the extent to which reductionist methods were wreaking havoc on world economies and social structures. "Under the guise of objectivity, neutrality and value-freedom, scientific endeavour colludes with big business to undermine life and life supporting systems, as well as human values, on a global level," she said.

The issue of social and moral responsibility of science had "dropped out of sight" and was seldom explicitly addressed, much less questioned, in the profit-driven mindset of the western, developed world. Dr Ho then listed the more fallacious, Ivory Tower excuses around which bad science is conducted, as follows:

(a) You cannot impede scientific progress;

(b) Science is never wrong, it is only its applications which may be bad;

(c) Scientific inquiry is always objective, neutral and value-free.

These excuses have no bearing on reality, she insisted, for science is conducted by humans, and all humans are by nature subjective, value-ridden and biased.

Dr Ho then postulated the view that Darwin had reflected the values of imperialist, capitalist western society when he outlined his theory of natural selection through the survival of the fittest, and this in turn had given rise to a mind-set which had driven corporate activity for the subsequent 150 years.

The "Absolute" moral responsibility of science

In reality, the moral responsibility of scientific knowledge is absolute, Dr Ho insisted, and cannot be abdicated in the name of profit or value-freedom . This fundamental truth is disregarded by political and business communities, which are increasingly locked into the growth and profit paradigm, feeding the consolidation of unaccountable corporate power characterised by a global free market with no barriers and the liberalisation of trade. As a result, unelected corporate rule has become the true power behind the throne , progressively replacing elected rule by governments. Dr Ho noted that regrettably this awareness had yet to penetrate into academic circles to any significant extent.

Turning to gene technology, Dr Ho cited this as an example of the capitalist paradigm at its extreme, with the biotechnology business community imposing its will on "the very stuff of life". Organisms are treated as little more than a series of collections of genes amenable to modification by corporate biotechnology, which disregards the demonstrable fact that Nature refuses to conform to intervention in a linear, predictable way, is organically interconnected and finite, and has already rebounded on our mismanagement with all the ills already confronting us, including global warming and the BSE crisis. Despite these proofs of the fallacy of such an attitude, said Dr Ho, genetic determinism is still being taught in our universities "as if no other theory existed".

Absurd situation

The situation had become so absurd that governments were now being sued for not allowing potentially toxic organisations across their borders, and almost all genetic engineers and researchers were linked to companies which dismissed safety warnings and suppressed findings of environmental hazards resulting from their activities. Proof of this last allegation was to be had from leaked copies of internal correspondence within Monsanto. Not surprisingly, public trust of scientists and government regulators was plummeting, while honest, concerned scientists found themselves increasingly marginalised and harassed by the corporate community. The end result would be corporate control of all aspects of food production, and the manipulation of human life, with made to measure babies and tailored public education not far over the horizon. "Our entire life and life-support system will be in the hands of unaccountable, non-elected corporations," she concluded. As an example of corporate control she cited the recently -developed Agrochemical Terminator Technology which results in sterile cereal crops, forcing farmers to buy in fresh seed stock each season.

Unsound determinism

All this activity rested on the unsound deterministic theory that research scientists can precisely identify a gene which governs a desired trait, extract it, and copy it such that the organism and its offspring will then have the desired trait , said Dr Ho. However, genetics did not function in a linear way , and such proponents of genetic determinism as Doctor Richard Dawkins, who explain biological activity in terms of selfish genes , made the mistake of assuming a one-way linear information flow from gene RNA to protein and thence to phenotype, and open the door to absolute exploitation of life forms. We had already seen human frogs (frog embryos containing human DNA) and mice with ears, and the the cloning of humans for the purpose of tissue replacement was already being discussed, and in all this, the voice of moral concern was being increasingly drowned out by considerations of profit. "Appalled people have their honest moral scruples dismissed as an irrational YUCK factor , and are castigated for the sin of attempting to impede scientific progress," she said. "However, keep in mind that the only motive for this activity is money. Only two percent of all diseases are genuine single-gene diseases, amenable to treatment by genetic manipulation. The majority of virulent diseases which scourge whole sectors of humankind are disregarded by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in their headlong rush for profit."

The feedback effect

In reality, Dr Ho pointed out, no gene functions in isolation; each depending on other genes within the genome. The transfer of a gene to a foreign genome was likely to give rise to new and unexpected effects, known as the feedback effect . Furthermore, genes can travel outside the genome (horizontal gene transfer). Dr Ho contrasted the deterministic central dogma with the new genetics which incorporates the concept of a fluid genome with a very complicated ecology, and stressed the danger of unnatural horizontal transfers which are currently being conducted in genetic engineering research, including the transfer of pig DNA to fish, and so on. She reminded the audience that dangers perceived in the vector technology of the 1970s had led pioneers to declare a moratorium on genetic engineering due to a fear of generating new, pathogens which were resistant to antibiotics. This moratorium had been cut short as a result of business pressures, and Dr Ho asked whether we had now opened the highway to the emergence of such resistant pathogens. The spread of soil fungi and bacteria was probable, for it had been achieved in the laboratory. Transgenic DNA was liable to spread by inserts and had been demonstrated to be up to 30 times more likely to escape into the environment than original DNA. It was a well known fact that the integration of foreign DNA into a genome was one of the causes of cancer.

Call for a moratorium

Dr Ho ended her talk with a plea for members to join her call for a moratorium and inquiry into the implications of genetic engineering for health, the environment, biodiversity and public liberties, stressing the need to embrace the new genetics , which "compels us to adopt an ecological, holistic perspective" regarding life and sustainability.

There followed a spirited question-and-answer session with a variety of views being aired. A questioner asked whether European Countries could start to rein in such organisations as Monsanto by forcing them to underwrite all experiments. Dr Ho pointed out that any action taken should be on a global level, as was her campaign for a moratorium, because if it were limited to the so-called developed nations, the dodgy technology would simply be more intensively dumped on to the developing nations instead.

Dissenting views

One significant dissenting voice to the talk was raised by Dr Michael Barnes, who stated that he considered Dr Ho's talk "extreme and misrepresentative", and said that the original moratorium had been imposed due to concerns about laboratory safety, that genetic determinism had arisen as the result of protein interactions, and insisted that when considering a moratorium one should distinguish between the medical and agrochemical spheres. In the medical arena, the majority of discoveries such as the Human Genome Mapping Project were in the public domain and organisations involved were largely against gene patenting. Corporations did not have the same hold in the medical sphere as they did in the food sphere. He supported a call for a moratorium in the food sphere because here Genetic Engineering was quite different; it consisted of tinkering and the results were not in the public domain; but in the medical sphere there was overwhelming support for the genetic approach, for example in the identification of genes which predispose individuals to various illnesses.


Dr Ho replied that even in the medical sphere the problem with this approach was that it could blind researchers to the potential effects of environmental factors, for example in cancers, where predisposition was believed in many cases to combine with life-style and environmental factors to result in illness. As regarded the point about the original moratorium having been for contained use , Dr Ho pointed out that releases to the environment were much more dangerous than events within a laboratory, and she wondered at the priorities underlying such events. Finally, she said, there were demonstrable, fundamental misconceptions inherent in the whole notion of safe genetic engineering. "It is assumed that if a certain strain of bacteria has a characteristic requiring a specific amino acid and is deprived of it - turning it into a so-called crippled strain - it will not survive in nature," she said. "In reality this has been disproved by observation. The environment is not a quantifiable entity and you can and do get horizontal transfer." Dr Ho ended the session with a final appeal to members to subscribe to the call for a moratorium.2


1 Dr Mae-Wan Ho (1998): Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? - The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway Books, Bath, UK.
2 A transcript of Dr Ho's Moratorium on GE biotechnology and No to Patents on Life first appeared in her 19981 publication and is reproduced in this issue.


Genetically Modified Foods - What's the Problem?

Presentation by Professor Derek Burke (Former Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes)

Derek Burke outlined some applications of genetic engineering in the food industry and briefly discussed some of the problems and issues of public concern that arise there. Genetically modified (GM) products have been accepted for quite a number of foods, but GM is not yet accepted for soya products. The three basic types of GM plants, so far used for foods, are those that are used to: (1) improve their quality and prolong their shelf life, e.g. in tomatoes; (2) produce new parental lines for new F1 hybrids, to improve yield; and (3) introduce resistance to herbicides and pesticides, e.g. in corn and soya.

Why Use GM Plants?

He said that the basic reason is to help feed the growing world population. The amount of available farmland is decreasing. As people become more prosperous, they eat more meat, so that more proteins are needed. However, many people argue that GM is not necessary for this purpose. They refer rightly to the facts that fairer distribution of food is needed, and that many people today cannot afford to buy the food that would otherwise be available for them. But how long will all these considerations continue to apply?

Are New GM Foods Safe?

GM tomatoes and vegetarian cheeses are both sold in supermarkets today, apparently accepted by a majority of their customers. However, there is much consumer resistance to products of GM soya beans. Are such products safe? In this particular case, a single gene of the soya plant was modified. Before GM soya products were allowed in the UK, Ministers took advice from an Advisory Committee on Food, of which Derek Burke was Chairman. For various reasons, the Committee saw no reason to doubt the safety of these products. The problem was that the BSE incident had eroded public trust in the UK regulatory system, especially as some people thought that it did not take proper precautions.

Why Was No Choice Offered to the Public?

GM soya products were also introduced into British, as well as American, supermarkets without consulting their customers. In the USA, the bulk marketing of soya products prevents segregation into GM products and non-GM products, and there has been little or no demand for segregation. The introduction of segregation would certainly increase costs, thus raising the prices charged to shoppers. In the UK, Iceland supermarkets do provide choice to their customers. In the British Government, Michael Meacher and Jeff Rooker have agreed with plant breeders about a temporary delay of full-scale commercial release of GM products, and proposed seven relevant measures.

Consumer Concerns and Issues

Quite a lot of consumers do not wish to eat food that they know to be GM, and some of them view GM as an unjustified tampering with nature. However, some scientists do not think it odd to move genes from one plant to another. Another issue is the development of a proper code of conduct for genetic engineering, which would have an appropriate balance between risks and benefits. There is also the question of whether and how to apply the precautionary principle. Of especial interest to developing countries is the question of whether multinational companies are too powerful. To some extent, concerns about GM products and methods in farming has become a 'lightning rod' for drawing attention to other issues, such as the nature of modern agribusiness, of concern to citizens.

What about the Future?

Decisions about our food are being taken by organisations and institutions in the USA and other countries as well as in the UK. Derek Burke said that he did not think that a ban on GM products was a sensible course to take. GM crops are here to stay in North America and large parts of Asia, and may soon spread to Europe. New targets are needed for new GM products. Consumers need to have a choice in the products that they buy, to know what is in different products, and to be confident that foods are being manufactured responsibly.


The Climate Train to Kyoto (Nov/Dec 1997)

Presentation by Ben Matthews, National Co-ordinating Committee, SGR

Ben Matthews gave a presentation reporting on SGR's main activity over the last two years: the Climate Train; whereby 36 scientists and environmentalists travelled to the Kyoto Climate Conference in Japan last December by train, boat and bicycle. The full report of the project has just been published by SGR, where further details can be found.

There were four reasons for the Climate Train:

   1. To get to the Kyoto Conference using methods which minimised any impact on the climate;

   2. To allow meetings with local scientists en route to take place to raise awareness and discussion of the climate change issue;

   3. To make a statement about the need to make changes in lifestyles in order to tackle climate change.

   4. To raise awareness through the global media about the need to make changes in our life-styles in order to tackle climate change effectively.

Ben presented a summary of the calculations made to compare the impact on the climate of air travel between Europe and Japan and that due to train and boat. These calculations concluded that the reduction of impact by using alternatives to air travel had been 7/8 (or 87%), and that of CO2 alone had been 2/3 (about 66%).

Ben then proceeded to detail the journey showing photographs of the main events and giving us an impression of life en route. A number of conferences were held: in Moscow; Novosibirsk (in Siberia); and Beijing. The one in Novosibirsk was particularly well attended (including local politicians and children) and reported in the media. It led to the setting up of Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility (SSGR). It also gave the Climate Train participants a chance to witness at first hand some of the changes taking place in Siberia which are believed to be due to climate change, including large-scale fires in the peat tundra as the permafrost begins to melt. The emphasis of the Beijing conference was on the effect of climate change on agriculture.

Ben pointed out a number of problems which occurred during their trip. In particular: our Russian and Chinese participants encountered difficulties in obtaining Japanese visas, and unrealistic visa requirements for westerners led to train ticket problems after Novosibirsk. Such events are apparently common and make this sort of trip more difficult. There were also problems with the the live video link, which had been planned to take place during the SGR conference last year, and which had to be abandoned because the venue for the Novosibirsk conference had been relocated from the university to the city (this made it easier for more people to attend the event, but the disadvantage was that there were no Internet links at the new site). On the other hand, the satellite phone was great and proved an indispensable asset during the latter part of the train journey.

Once at the Kyoto Conference, the Climate Train had a conference display which was well positioned, and they took part in various protests, street theatre and even wrote their own Climate Song! The most important contribution they made was a statement delivered by Michelle Valentine to the Main Assembly, which was an honour few other NGOs were allowed. The full text of the statement is given in the published report, but its main thrust was the importance of making life-style changes to reduce greenhouse gas in, particularly, Western countries.

Ben concluded his talk by presenting a breakdown of the finances. SGR and its collaborators managed to raise $100,000 in funding which covered the project's expenses. He estimated that roughly a further $50,000 was donated in time and effort by individuals and organisations involved in the project. SGR made no money out of the project.

There is little doubt that the project was a big success, greatly contributing to awareness of the issue and the sort of action that needs to be taken to address it. Ben and Dani Kaye (SGR and Climate Train Press Officer) were in little doubt that the Climate Train attracted more publicity than any other NGO campaign, and SGR's role as main co-ordinator of the project raised our national and international profile considerably.

Report of The Climate Train

Genetic Engineering

Workshop led by Dr Helen Wallace, Senior Scientist, Greenpeace UK

This workshop was very well attended, covering as it did the key topic of the Conference, and Dr Wallace ably picked up the reins of convenorship handed to her by Dr Sue Mayer of GeneWatch, who was unfortunately unable to attend.

Dr Wallace began the session by handing out a number of statements from various sources (pressure groups, government, medical bodies, scientists, etc.) concerning genetic engineering, and asking the participants to identify instances of scientific or emotional language in these statements, as well as those comments which dealt with wider issues or issues of responsibility. The point of this exercise was quickly grasped: every organisation or individual involved in the GE debate has a private or public agenda, is speaking from a specific perspective, and may often have valid points to make, even if these are not to the taste of other parties to the debate. Having illustrated this point very effectively, Dr Wallace then moved on and asked what the people attending this workshop were hoping to do: What was our agenda? Could we discuss the question of GE and perhaps come to some sort of consensus about its desirability or otherwise?

A lively discussion ensued, which largely picked up where the question-and-answer session following Dr Ho's talk had left off. Among the many points put forward for discussion and consideration were:

- Whether to support a call for a moratorium on the release of GE crops to the environment and for more effective labelling of GE foods or foods containing GE ingredients. The workshop was unanimously in favour of this, agreeing that a moratorium on agricultural applications of GE was urgent.

- Research into the funding behind GE research: is this in fact in the hands of profit-driven multinationals? What are its links with academia? SGR would encourage the work of any member who undertook to investigate this aspect.

- SGR's position on medical aspects/applications of GE: Did we feel that this was as dangerous as in the food industry? Dr Michael Barnes here made an eloquent defence of the role of GE research in medicine, and it was decided to continue the debate on this topic over e-mail and SGRforum, offering members an opportunity to debate it openly.

- The potential for a whole new generation of biological weapons arising from GE: this was seen as an area which needed more consideration and close investigation. One suggestion which met with general hilarity was that we might write to Saddam Hussein to renounce GE.

- Education and information of the public: it was perceived as critically important that the public become much more literate in the topic so that they could make informed contributions to the debate. It was agreed that SGR could contribute significantly to this process, both within and outside academia. Dani Kaye pointed out that SGR's Science Matters project was planning to release an information pack for schools on GE topics as part of its general publication programme, and this would make the issues clear in easy-to-grasp language, and would be equally useful for the lay public. Other suggestions included: giving talks, organising local public meetings, and so on. The approach was seen as an essential step towards the empowerment of non-scientists in this field. Public understanding of science is an important step towards the highly desirable public control of scientific activity. This in its turn would result in a democratic and accountable scientific community, a topic close to SGR's heart (see our call for Open Science spearheaded by Dr Alan Cottey).

- The issue of Bioremediation (technofixes through GE) was also brought forward. This was recognised as potentially a very thorny problem, but not entered into during the workshop.

- No to the patenting of genes, specifically the EU Patents Directive on Gene Sequences and Cell Lines. Dr Mae-wan Ho told the workshop that Scientists for a Global Moratorium on Commercial Releases had already amassed 4000 signatures in support of this movement, and called upon all those attending to join the campaign. D. K. undertook to forward a copy of the 1997 State of the World Forum 's Statement on Life and Evolution to all participants for their consideration, and seconded Dr Ho's call for its support, recommending that SGR as an organisation adopt the statement. Dr Barnes did not support this call and made the point that the whole issue of gene patenting had not been sufficiently covered by the workshop to justify a decision at this stage. Dani Kaye. proposed to release the statement anyway, and said that anyone who, like Dr Barnes, objected to it in any way would have an opportunity to develop his or her arguments in online discussion.

- One member suggested challenging companies involved in GE research to underwrite the side-effects if anything were to go wrong with their programmes. Drs Wallace and Ho pointed out that insurance companies would be unwilling to be involved in such an activity.

- It was generally agreed that action must be rapid and effective, and members were reminded that statements and suggestions could quickly be disseminated to the rest of the membership through e-mail and SGRforum, as well as by more conventional means. Members were urged to write articles, lobby Government and put their arguments, demand labelling of foodstuffs and segregation of GE foodstuffs within stores, organise meetings and conferences, and spread the message of good science , which boils down to a holistic approach, avoiding potentially dangerous reductionism.

- Student representatives stated that they were due to convene a number of debates on GE, science and ethics, and requested support for this, which SGR wholeheartedly agreed to give to the best of its ability.

- A member asked whether it was possible to ascertain where in the UK GE test crops were being planted, and suggestions were made that if the information were gathered it might be released on Internet.

- It was generally agreed that further meetings should be convened if possible to keep the momentum going, and members agreed to attempt to get such events under way in their local areas.

Closing the workshop, Dr Wallace pointed out that the most effective way to go about making a difference was to avoid working in isolation; she recommended that members form local coalitions with similarly minded groups, stay in touch with events and avoid despair. Her words were particularly heart-warming and provided a fitting end to this highly charged session.


Transport and Climate Change

Workshop led by Dr Tim Foxon, National Co-ordinating Committee, SGR

It was suggested that the workshop focus on three possible actions on this topic:

   1. an SGR response to the Government Consultation paper on the UK Climate Change Programme (deadline 12th February, 1999);

   2. setting up a discussion forum for scientists on this issue;

   3. awareness raising of the importance of the growing contribution of emissions from transport to climate change.

The workshop agreed that these three actions were appropriate, and then focused on the issues which may contribute towards SGR's response to the consultation paper.

In particular, we discussed ways in which air travel (the fastest growing sector) could be reduced, how car travel could be made less attractive in favour of public transport and cycling etc, and even ways to reform the economic system so that more sustainable transportation was encouraged.

A couple of other suggestions were made concerning action that SGR could be involved in: production of an eco-travel guide; and organisation of an alternative to the next COP climate conference, following the example of The Other Economic Summit (now The Peoples Summit ) which is held in parallel with each G8 meeting.

It was agreed that discussion should continue through an SGR email discussion forum, in particular to complete the SGR response to the Government consultation paper.

Annex - specific points

On the issue of air transport, it was noted that:

   1. Friends of the Earth Netherlands have produced a report as part of their campaign entitled The Right Price for Air Travel , which produces newsletters and regular information bulletins. Important to note is that this campaign is very specifically targeted towards achieving air taxes or charges (principally in the EU) and probably will be wrapped up soon as an FoE campaign; therefore there is scope for continued work in this area by SGR.

   2. Video conferencing offers the possibility of replacing some air travel.

   3. Air travel is currently growing at 6% per annum.

   4. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the body which oversees international air travel, is currently resisting attempts to tax aviation fuel at a level compatible with ground based transportation.

A number of more general points were made:

   1. the UK government should get a higher share of UK oil revenues and use this to subsidise, eg, public transport.

   2. major economic reform was necessary to tackle climate change long term: eg ecological tax reform; linking currency to energy consumption.

   3. is the large amount of military transport necessary?

   4. more freight should be carried by rail and canals.

   5. planning regulations need to be reformed to help build community and support public transport, cycling and walking rather than cars.

   6. car owners should pay to have trees planted to offset their GHG emissions.

   7. car advertising should include GHG emissions information, and a government health warning.

   8. city centre buses should be free at off-peak times to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

   9. the other benefits of fewer cars/ aircraft (eg noise, air pollution, safer communities etc) should be promoted as well.

   10. Swiss trains running downhill generate electricity which feeds into the national grid - how much scope for this in the UK and elsewhere?

   11. the use of cost-benefit analysis is very problematic in the area.

   12. A number of recent publications from the Wuppertal Institute in Germany and the Rocky Mountain Institute in the USA are relevant to this issue.


A third workshop on 'Getting SGR better known' was run by Philip Webber of SGR.